Stephen Hough’s Majestic ‘Emperor’ with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

16/03/2018

Beethoven, Ives, Brahms: Stephen Hough (piano), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Thierry Fischer (conductor), The Lighthouse, Poole, 14.3.2018. (IL)

Stephen Hough (c) Sim Canetty-Clarke

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat Major ‘Emperor’

Ives – The Unanswered Question

Brahms – Symphony No.1 in C minor

I have been fortunate to review many of Stephen Hough’s recordings over the years, mainly for the Hyperion label. I was greatly looking forward to his appearance playing this well-loved Beethoven concerto, especially on the BSO’s new Steinway grand piano. Hough delivered a poised, majestic performance with every note, every run, every arpeggio cleanly articulated and clear but also with a keen appreciation for the structure as a whole. I noted that he is one of those enlightened soloists who take a keen interest in the surrounding orchestra’s music-making when his contribution is at rest. He invested power and authority in the more explosive passages of the opening movement and nuanced subtlety in the contrasting quieter passages. His rendering of that gorgeous melody of the Adagio un poco mosso slow movement was most affecting. (The BSO woodwind solos through this movement beguiled.) The concluding Rondo rollicked away joyously enjoyed by soloist and orchestra alike, judging from the facial expressions of more than one player. Fischer encouraged a fine-shaded orchestral support that distinguished the whole performance which, to these ears, sounded fresh and vital.

I will admit to a certain difficulty with the music of Charles Ives. I was therefore grateful for Andrew Burn’s erudite programme notes for The Unanswered Question. Ives had described his music as a ‘cosmic landscape’. The unanswered question addresses ‘The Perennial Question of Existence’. I was impressed by Ives’s writing for the strings playing ppp with no change in tempo. This really did give an impression of vast inscrutable cosmic space. The winds’ contribution, a seemingly inconsequential chatter, seems to offer no solution to the eternal questioning, and we are left with the enigmatic ‘a question can be better than an answer’. Now all this, to me, seems to beg a pause afterwards to reflect. Fischer did not allow this, for he immediately and jarringly launched straight into the Brahms Symphony.

Thierry Fischer is a most animated and demonstrative conductor. His reading of the Brahms Symphony No.1, awesome and majestic, a very suitable coupling with the Beethoven Concerto, was consistently satisfying, from the commanding strengths of the outgoing material of the outer movements to the bewitching lyricism of the inner ones, especially the luscious Andante sostenuto. There were just occasional disappointments. And this is where I air a prejudice of mine. One of the highlights of this movement is the powerful writing for the trombones as they iterate the chorale-like melody especially in the coda. They should blaze forth in all their glory. Surprisingly at this point Thierry did not encourage them to really go fff; perhaps their sound was submerged somewhat by the other brass? I always remember how Carlo Maria Giulini, I think it was, once encouraged the trombones to stand up and point their instruments straight out at the audience for maximum effect.

A rewarding concert of well-loved classics and a welcome performance of an intriguing Ives creation.

Ian Lace

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